Download PDF Thomas Aquinas: Happiness, Desire, Virtue: An Interpretation

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First, in contrast to irrational animals, man has the faculty and will of reason. The will, also known as the rational appetite, seeks to achieve both its end and the good, and so all acts, being guided by the will, are for an end. As long as man desires and seeks something, he remains unhappy. The intellect seeks the essence of a thing. For example, knowing an effect, such as a solar eclipse, the intellect is aroused and is unsatisfied until it discovers the cause of the eclipse.

Indeed, the intellect desires to understand the essence of the cause. For this reason, the intellect is unsatisfied to know merely that the First Cause, that is, God, exists.

Article 1. Whether happiness is something uncreated?

The intellect seeks to penetrate farther to the very essence of the First Cause itself. Perfect knowledge of the intelligible end, actual attainment of the end, and delight in the presence of the end attained must all coexist in happiness. Happiness in this life, which is necessarily imperfect, requires rectitude of the will, the existence of the body, and certain external goods and consists in the use of the intellect either speculatively or practically i. Perfect happiness, which is possible only in the life to come, consists in contemplation of the Divine Essence, which is goodness.

Finally, man is capable of attaining happiness, that is, of seeing God, and one person can be happier than another insofar as she is better inclined to enjoy him. Happiness excludes the presence of evil, though, and since evil is present in this world, it is impossible for man to be happy in this life. Using this language as canonical, Aristotle speaks of the subject of the change as its hyle or matter, the character it gains as its morphe or form, and its prior lack of the form as its privation.

Any change will involve these three elements: matter, form and privation. The product of a change involves two things: matter and form. Change takes place in the various categories of quality, quantity, place, and so on. In all cases the terminology of matter, form, and privation comes to be used.

So the terms applied in these different categories will be used analogously. The terms bind together similar but different kinds of change—a subject changing temperature is like a subject changing place or size. The analysis of change and the product of change begins with surface changes. Some enduring thing changes place or quality or quantity. But enduring things like men and trees and horses and the like have also come into being and are destined some day to cease to be.

Such things are called substances. It is a given that there are substances and that they come to be and pass away. The question is: Can the analysis of surface change be adjusted and applied to substantial change? What would its subject be? The subject of substantial change is known on an analogy with the subject of incidental or surface change.

That is, if substances come to be as the result of a change, and if our analysis of change can apply, there must be a subject of the change. The subject of a surface or incidental change is a substance. The subject of a substantial change cannot be a substance; if it were, the result would be a modification of that substance, that is, an incidental change.

But we are trying to understand how a substance itself comes into being as the result of a change.

Thomas Aquinas' Ethics: An Analysis | OurHappySchool

There must be a matter or subject but it cannot be matter in the sense of a substance. In order to signal this, we can call the matter prime matter , first matter. But it is important to recognize that this prime matter is not a substance, and does not exist apart from any particular substance. It is always the matter of some substance that exists.


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When the discussion moves on from what may be said of all physical objects as such to an inquiry into living physical things, the analyses build upon those already completed. The peculiar activities of living things will be grouped under headings like nutrition, growth, sense perception, knowing, and willing. Since a living thing sometimes manifests an instance of such activities and sometimes does not, they relate to it in the manner of the incidental forms of any physical object.

But they are not incidental in the way that we might think of the shade of color of one's skin at any particular time, or the particular height or weight of an individual, since as activities the ability or power to engage in them proceeds from what the substance in question is. Thomas at times will call the powers through which they are achieved necessary accidents, using accident in a sense different from more recent philosophy. While the abilities need not be exercised at any particular time or may be impeded from exercise by some condition, the substance nonetheless possesses them in principle as long as it exists.

The form such a subject takes on as the result of the change cannot be an incidental form like size or location or temperature. Substances do not become or cease to be substances as a result of changes in these incidental features. As the analysis of incidental change makes clear, the substance previously existed without the form it acquires in the change and it could lose it and still be itself.

In a substantial change, the substance itself simply comes to be, or ceases to be.

The form in a substantial change must be that which makes the substance to be what it is. Call it substantial form. Here we see the semantic plasticity of the term 'matter'. Initially in the analysis of change, 'matter' refers to the substance that takes on or loses some incidental categorical modification of that substance. Then the term is extended by analogy to cover whatever is the subject of a change of substance. Socrates or Bucephalus is a substance strictly speaking. The forms and matter of Socrates and Bucephalus are not.

Question 3. What is happiness

They are substantial principles without being substances or quasi-substances in their own right. So the point to notice about this analysis is that substantial change is spoken of on an analogy with incidental change. The analysis of incidental change is presupposed and regulative. Moreover, the language used to speak of the elements of incidental change are extended to substantial change and altered in meaning so as to avoid equivocation. The philosophical vocabulary arises out of analysis of what is most obvious to us and is then progressively extended to more and more things insofar as the later is made known by appeal to the prior.

Candace Vogler

We see that matter and form apply in an analogous way to the various kinds of incidental change and then to substantial change. The analysis of form and matter provides a rule for knowing and naming that will characterize Thomas's use of Latin in philosophy and in theology as well. Focusing specifically upon perception—seeing, feeling, hearing, and the like—how can we best analyze it?

In continuity with what has gone before, the questions are put in this form: How best to analyze coming to see, coming to feel, coming to hear, and the like? Seeing these on the analogy of change as already analyzed, we look for a subject, a privation, and a form. The sensing subject is the animal, but the proximate subjects to which they are attributed are the powers of sight, touch, hearing, and the like. An instance of seeing is describable as the power's moving from not seeing to seeing. Since the object of seeing is color, the change from not seeing to seeing issues in the power having the form of color.

Consider an ordinary physical change, a substance acquiring a color. Coming to see a color is not the same kind of physical change as a substance acquiring a color. To be sure, while there are physical changes involved in sensation—the organs are altered in the way physical bodies are—that is not the change involved in perception as such.

Consider again that in feeling a warm or cold body the hand's own temperature is altered by the contact. But feeling cannot be just that, since any two physical bodies that come into contact undergo a similar alteration of temperature. But not all physical bodies feel the temperature. Feeling the temperature, becoming aware of it, is another sort of change, however much it involves a contemporaneous change in the organs of sense similar to ordinary physical change.

Having the color or temperature in this further sense is thus made known and named by reference to physical change. The fundamental difference between the two ways of acquiring a form is this: in a physical change of color, the change produces a new numerical instance of the color. In grasping or sensing a color, a numerically new instance of color does not result.

And yet what was potentially visible becomes actually visible. There is actuality in the world where before there was only potentiality--an actuality of the seen color, and an actuality of color not in the mode of existence that color has in physical things.

We have here the basis for talk of immateriality in perception. If the acquiring of a form by matter in physical change results in a new instance of the form and this is not the case with perception, we can make the point that acquiring the form in sensation is not identical to the acquiring of the form by matter in the primary sense.

Thus, we both want to speak of the subject of sensation on an analogy with physical change and to distinguish the former from the latter. This is done by speaking of the immaterial reception of a form. Nonetheless, the sense power is implemented in a physical organ, and thus matter for the change of form in sensation in an analogous sense.